Music from tiny particles' movements set to debut

Mark Fell and Jonathan Howse Mark Fell (l) collaborated with Jonathan Howse to turn "Brownian motion" into music

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The random dance of tiny particles bouncing around in liquid has been turned into a unique sound display.

The jostling molecules of liquid bump the particles to and fro in an effect called Brownian motion.

Now a chemical engineer and an artist have joined forces to turn this random molecular dance into music.

The project, called Scale Structure Synthesis, was developed for the University of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind, which begins on Thursday.

The festival will see a number of pairings of science specialists with non-specialists in the name of public engagement, alongside talks, exhibitions and demonstrations.

Music of the spheres

For Scale Structure Synthesis, Jonathan Howse of the University of Sheffield built a simple microscope to observe the "musicians" of the installation: tiny particles of polystyrene, spheres just a millionth of a metre across, floating around in liquid.

A microscope with a camera attached is fixed on the particles as Brownian motion pushes them back and forth, and computer software tracks the motions of up to eight of the particles.

Artist Mark Fell then turns this stream of data into molecular music.

The sounds come from eight separate speakers, one assigned to each tracked particle. The pitch of the sound from each speaker changes with the distance a given particle moves, while the timbre or character of the sound changes with the angle of the movement.

The results make for interesting listening, Mr Fell said.

Microscope image of polystyrene particles The distance each particle moves, and at what angle, determines what sounds are produced

"The piece we're doing could be thought of as quite confrontaitional," he told BBC News. "It's not nice, drifty, atmospheric kind of soundscapes, it's quite pure, resonant, frequencies. Aesthetically it could be quite challenging."

"It's not like I'm trying to induce any kind of feeling or specific response, my hope is that it's aesthetically out of what people might normally encounter and prompts some kind of curiosity."

Dr Howse said that the project allowed a unique connection with the microscopic world.

"These things we're looking at are really, really small and you don't interact with them, you only ever see them down the end of a microscope," he told BBC News. "Making something bigger with it will be quite interesting."

But the connection is also to phenomena that are important in the real world.

"The way particles behave in solution is hugely important, from industrial processes to drug delivery - that's why I deal with particle technology. There will be some weird sounds coming out but also it's underpinned by science."

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